No Chocolate Cake
429 Records, 2010
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/13/2010
Leave it to the Gin Blossoms—the band that offered us a New Miserable Experience and then told us Congratulations I’m Sorry—to leave me feeling ambivalent about their new album.
The Blossoms’ stellar 1992 debut arrived in the midst of a truly miserable period in the band members’ lives. Even as the group was completing work on the album, their friend, lead guitarist, nominal bandleader and raging alcoholic Douglas Hopkins was spiraling out of control, to the point where he could no longer perform and the rest of the band felt compelled to replace him. Months later, just as the album containing several of the best songs he ever wrote was climbing the charts, Hopkins killed himself.
The debut album the Gin Blossoms produced under those trying circumstances was nothing short of brilliant. It was full of brutally honest, edgy songwriting, juxtaposing buoyant power-pop music with lyrics rife with disappointment and despair. Their sophomore album, 1996’s Congratulations I’m Sorry, cut with “new guy” (now 17-year veteran) Scott Johnson on lead guitar, was strong in many of the same respects, but in the wake of that album and tour, the band splintered, as the chaos and pressure caught up with them and remaining chief songwriters Robin Wilson (lead vocals) and Jesse Valenzuela (guitar / harmony vocals) began pulling in different directions.
No Chocolate Cake is the second studio album the band has issued since reuniting in 2002. Like 2006’s Major Lodge Victory, it has tremendous surface appeal. It still has that fuel-injected jangle, Wilson’s keening lead vocals still match up beautifully with Valenzuela’s breathy harmonies, and bassist Bill Leen and latter-day drummer John Richardson still drive the songs like Indy 500 pace cars. After just two listens, several of these songs dug their hooks into my cranium and refused to leave. And yet—and here comes the ambivalence—there’s something missing, something that I suspect the band gladly left behind.
What’s missing is the almost visceral anguish heard on their first two albums. The ’90s Gin Blossoms were messy and dangerous, balancing out the sweetness of their hooks and harmonies with their damaged, downcast lyrics. In the absence of that sense of manic depressive melodrama, No Chocolate Cake, like Major Lodge Victory, features a series of bouncy, upbeat numbers that are addictively enjoyable without being nearly as affecting.
The most memorable among the heavier songs is opener “Don’t Change For Me,” which offers a strong hook and steady drive supporting a slightly clunky positive-thinking lyric that, while unquestionably sincere, feels distinctly out of character for a band that used to sing about tied hands and lost horizons. The other obvious shot at radio fodder here, “Miss Disarray,” similarly has its moments in the harmony-heavy chorus and Johnson’s concise solo, but ends up feeling a bit calculated.
Much of the album in fact feels overly polished and rather distant, and one possible explanation can be found in the liner notes, where you learn that Valenzuela and Wilson recorded their respective songs in separate studios in separate states, Wilson in Tempe and Valenzuela in LA, where the latter partnered up with co-producer/co-writer Danny Wilde of the Rembrandts. The end result lacks the sense of organic interplay and careening energy that powered the first two albums.
Of course, these guys are way too talented to deliver an album that’s less than entertaining. “Wave Bye Bye” is one of the group’s finer mid-tempo tunes, a steady-burning beauty in the vein of “’Til I Hear It From You” or “As Long As It Matters.” Later on, the jangle-licious “Somewhere Tonight” bears faint echoes of 1991’s “Angels Tonight,” a mid-tempo, harmony-rich tune that spotlights Wilson and Valenzuela’s terrific vocal work. “If You’ll Be Mine” finds the GBs trying something entirely new for them, a piano ballad that once again highlights the vocal interplay at the core of the band’s sound, with Johnson delivering some very pretty guitar work near the end.
The rockers are more often where the album falters. “I’m Ready” sounds like the theme song to a 1980s “go for it”/coming-of-age sports movie, complete with echoed chorus vocals and baldly anthemic ambitions—what it’s doing on a Gin Blossoms album, I can’t really say. (The crime of crimes, though, comes when they fade out Johnson’s best guitar solo on the whole album…) Then there’s the solid thumper with sweet guitar-drum dialogue that nonetheless overstays its welcome, “Go Crybaby”—also the victim of one of the two glaring typos on the back cover of this amateurishly-packaged disc. Toward the end, “Dead Or Alive On The 405” is a pure goof, a lighthearted novelty tune with prominent horns. It’s got a hook that could land a 200-pound marlin—and I can’t figure out yet if I love it or hate it.
Let’s set that ambivalence aside for just a moment at the end here, though, and speak plainly. I’m a longtime fan of the Gin Blossoms. I’ve met most of the band and had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Valenzuela a few years ago. On a personal level, I’m really glad the guys are happier than they used to be; they seem like good people, and they’ve worked hard to achieve the success they’ve enjoyed. And, in the final analysis, No Chocolate Cake is everything you could ask for from a power-pop album—melodic, entertaining and catchy as hell, a fine example of the Gin Blossoms’ craft. It’s just that—and you hate to say something like this out loud, but there it is—their pain is what made them interesting.